The 1957 European Figure Skating Championships

Postcard of the Votivkirche on the Ringstraße in Vienna, Austria, 1957

The Toddlers' Truce, a controversial British television scheduling policy that stopped transmissions between six and seven at night so that children could be put to bed finally met its demise. The Soviet Union announced that Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who helped save the lives of tens of thousands of Jewish people in Nazi-occupied Hungary - and then gone missing himself - had died some ten years earlier in a Soviet prison of 'an apparent heart attack'. Decades later it would be revealed he had been executed in Lubyanka. Figure skater Tab Hunter's hit single "Young Love" topped the British music charts on Valentine's Day, 1957, when the three-day European Figure Skating Championships of 1957 kicked off at the Wiener Eislaufverein's rink in Vienna, Austria.


The event, televised on Eurovision, marked only the second year that skaters from the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union participated, although the East German federation sent only sent one pair, as they had the year prior at the Europeans in Paris. As a trial, the results in Vienna were calculated using the 'Finnish system', except ice dance which used the ISU's normal system of calculating results based on ordinals and point totals.

The 'Finnish system' - the brainchild of Olympic Gold Medallist Walter Jakobsson - didn't factor in ordinal placings at all. Instead, the marks which deviated the most from the average score given to the first skater were thrown out and the remaining marks added up to give a point total that would determine their ranking in that phase of the competition. The system had first been tested at an international competition for junior skaters in Switzerland in 1955. At the 1957 ISU Congress in Salzburg, it was decided that this system didn't improve matters and that it would go the way of the dodo in amateur competition. Ironically, a simplified version of the system ultimately became the 'norm' in professional figure skating competitions. Who were the big winners in Vienna in 1957? The 'biggest losers'? Let's take a look back and find out!

THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION


June Markham and Courtney Jones

Defending European Champions Pamela Weight and Paul Thomas had retired from competition but based on the fact that British couples from Gladys Hogg's seemingly endless stable of champions had swept the European podium for the last three years, it was very much expected that another British couple would rise to the top in 1957. After thirteen couples weaved their way through the patterns of the Rocker Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz, Kilian and Argentine Tango, June Markham and Courtney Jones had amassed an impressive, unanimous lead. Jones was a twenty three year old dress designer on leave from the R.A.F. to compete. Markham was five years Jones' junior and came from a multi-generational 'show biz' family. She sometimes assisted her father, a magician, with his acts.

Markham and Jones, whom British and French announcers compared to actors Kim Novak and Roman Novarro, were placed first by all but one judge in the free dance and became the third British couple in history to win the World ice dance title. Barbara Thompson and Gerard Rigby and Catherine Morris and Michael Robinson made it another British sweep. Bona Giammona and Giancarlo Sioli, the Italian team who finished fourth, were placed first in the free dance by Hungarian judge László Szollás. West Germans Sigrid Knake and Günther Koch placed fifth, one spot ahead of France's Christiane Elien and Claude Lambert. Elien and Lambert's ordinals in the free dance ranged from fourth through dead last!

Photo courtesy "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice" by Lynn Copley-Graves

Reginald Wilkie, reviewing the event for "Skating World" magazine, was less than complimentary to the dancers, noting that Foxtrot and Blues rhythms were played to death in the free dance and that many of the Continental teams skated at the same level of the NSA Second Class Dance Tests.

THE PAIRS COMPETITION


Věra Suchánková and Zdeněk Doležal

Sissy Schwarz and Kurt Oppelt, the defending European Champions in pairs skating, had turned professional. It was generally expected that Hungarian siblings Marianna and László Nagy would again win the title they'd claimed in 1950 and 1955. The top three teams were extremely close but the surprise winners were Věra Suchánková and Zdeněk Doležal of Czechoslovakia. Though they had finished second at the 1955 Europeans, Suchánková and Doležal had only placed eighth at the 1956 Winter Olympic Games.

Video courtesy Frazer Ormondroyd

For the third straight year, West Germans Marika Kilius and Franz Ningel took the bronze medal. Kilius was quite weak at the time, suffering from side effects of a smallpox vaccination. British Champions Joyce Coates and Anthony Holles placed fifth, one spot ahead of Nina (Bakusheva) and Stanislav Zhuk.

THE MEN'S COMPETITION



After the first two figures, Alain Giletti held a tenuous lead over Karol Divín. By the conclusion of the school figures, Giletti expanded his lead to ten points and Divín dropped to third, just three tenths of a point behind Great Britain's Michael Booker. Giletti was only fourth in the free skate but held on to the overall lead. Divín, who won the free skate, was second overall. Dennis Bird recalled, "Divín's free skating was outstanding in its elegance, and he included a fine double Axel - still not a very common jump in Europe." Michael Booker claimed the bronze, ahead of Alain Calmat. Newly crowned West German Champion Manfred Schnelldorfers placed seventh but impressed the judges with his brand new free skate to Mendelsohhn's "Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt". The retirements of several elite level skaters in Munich had afforded him more ice time to practice his jumps.

THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION


Ingrid Wendl, Hanna Walter and Hanna Eigel. Photo courtesy Bildarchiv Austria.

The 'main event' for the Viennese spectators was the women's event, framed by the Austrian press as a showdown between 1955 European Champion Hanna Eigel and 1956 European Champion Ingrid Wendl. The last two times the two young women had competed, Wendl had come out on top. When she took a narrow lead over Eigel in the figures, some thought the title was as good as hers.

Strangely enough, Eigel and Wendl and British contenders Erica Batchelor and Dianne Peach all floundered in the free skate. They didn't just flounder in a weak field - the quartet all placed in the fifth through tenth range in that phase of the competition! The top four in the free skate consisted of West Germany's Ina Bauer, followed by Austria's Hanna Walter and Czechoslovakia's Jindřiška Kramperová and Jana Dočekalová. When the high and low marks were thrown out and the marks tallied, it was Hanna Eigel who came out on top and Ingrid Wendl who came in second, based on Eigel's fifth to Wendl's sixth in the free skate. Hanna Walter took the bronze ahead of Peach and Batchelor. Ina Bauer, fifteenth in figures, was only able to move up to tenth. Kramperová was eighth and Dočekalová thirteenth.

Women's medallists. Photo courtesy Bildarchiv Austria.

Interestingly, the women's event in Vienna marked the first and only time to date that a trio of Austrian women swept the podium at the European Championships. Three Austrian men had swept the European podium back in 1922. The only other previous medal sweep by one country in the women's event at Europeans was back in 1939, when the British women took the honours. In the years that followed, Bauer's result in Vienna - which confused spectators and Eurovision viewers - was used as a "prime example why the judging system had to be changed" to devalue figures.


An interesting footnote regarding these Championship was the ISU's decision to transport a large group of European skaters, judges and the ISU president on the same flight after a post-Championship exhibition in Switzerland to the World Championships in Colorado Springs. In light of the Sabena Crash just four years later, seeing the passenger manifest is just plain spooky!

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